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Opinion & Analysis

‘Robust Opposition without fear or favour’

Johnny Bugeja

I wanted to wish you and your families a happy and healthy 2020.

This year opens a new decade and brings new challenges for Gibraltar. We enter 2020 knowing with certainty that we are leaving the EU. The re-election of the Conservatives in the UK with a big majority has now put paid to any hopes that circumstances could emerge that might lead to a change of direction and our remaining in the EU. That clarity now means several things.

First it means that the biggest challenge in 2020 will be to secure a permanent beneficial deal with the EU. As there is a transitional deal till the end of December 2020 it also means that despite the flaws of that deal 2020 may feel like a year when there have not been any fundamental changes to our way of life. We will largely feel as if we were still in the EU but inexorably things will change.

The big test will come in 2021 when we know one way or the other whether there is a permanent deal with the EU and Spain in respect of basic arrangements affecting border flows or whether there has been an extension to the transitional period to allow further negotiations. We believe that a good deal can be negotiated with the EU but we must be conscious of the possibility such a deal may not be available or that we may be excluded from it.

Secondly and because of that we must continue to plan for the consequences of being outside the EU without any arrangements on frontier fluidity or access to parallel beneficial commercial rights. To do that we will need to have put in place our own arrangements to guarantee the smooth continuation of basic medical services, transport, food and goods.

Gibraltar has an extra year to ensure that it gets ready for the end of the transitional period in whatever shape or form it arrives in January next year. There will be no excuses if the Government has not made Gibraltar BREXIT ready as they will have had plenty of advance warning of that possibility. By then they will have had over four years since the BREXIT referendum.

We have offered our help several times both before and after the last election. We think that there should be an attempt at unity in the public interest on issues as fundamental as our new relationship with the EU. We need to be bold and imaginative and not just merely hang on to the coat-tails of the UK’s negotiating strategy which may not take into account our unique needs and wish to achieve starkly different objectives. So far our offer to assist in the negotiations with the EU at this seminal moment in our history has been rejected. Instead what the Government seems to want is for the Opposition to blindly support it whatever they do.

They can decide to exclude us from real participation but if they do they cannot realistically expect blind faith and support under the pretence of a call for unity.
We would certainly be running these negotiations and our affairs in a very different way.

Especially at a time of BREXIT uncertainty we need to have an economic war chest available to weather any storms.

During the recent election campaign the GSLP/Liberals stated that they anticipated that their post-BREXIT economic plan needed an injection of 500M. They went so far as to say that they had the people lined up to do that. Such a statement could only lead people to believe that there were people actually lined up with half a billion pounds to inject into our economy. We now know that this was simply untrue.

In Parliament last month they could not say who those people were and accepted they did not have investors with 500M lined up at all. This is classic GSLP – a secret economic plan with investors supposedly lined up who then turn out to be fictitious. But the more serious aspect is that this is what they promised you ahead of the election and the basis on which they sought your vote.

Since the election we also now – finally – have some figures of the amounts the GSLP/Liberals have spent on big projects in the run up to BREXIT. They have spent approximately 53M on the sporting facilities at Lathbury and Europa. They have spent approximately 111M on new schools.

The cost of Hassans Centenary Terraces is expected to be about 140M. We also know that they have committed 50M to assist the developers of Victoria Keys to fund that reclamation. All that totals over 300M and it does not even include the cost of the mega music festivals last year, the other two housing projects of Bob Peliza Mews and Chatham Views or any of the other projects in their manifesto. The total cost of all those will likely be in the many hundreds of millions.

We have been warning and will continue to warn about the prudence of this kind of spending – especially in the run up to the uncertainty of the post-BREXIT world in 2021. The reality is that it is the easiest thing in the world to spend other people’s money and to look as if you have money when you are spending someone else’s.

But sooner or later the money runs out and needs to be repaid. And the real legacy we are being handed is one of generational debt.

I know that this message may not be received well by some. We all like being told that everything will be fine. And Mr Picardo in particular is a master at telling people what they want to hear. But there is no point living in a perpetual Disneyland of economics where we are being sold the tale that money is no object, that it doesn’t matter that housing estates are mortgaged, that people are lining up to invest when it is untrue or that we are somehow immune from the normal rules of economic prudence or accountability.

The basic reality is that these big projects are only being financed from borrowing by a Government who promised to halve the gross public debt in 2011 and have instead tripled it. They are spending other people’s money but it will have to be repaid by you. And it cannot be repaid in Disney dollars but in real pounds sterling.

The election was only three months ago and we accept the result completely. But it is also true that the result indicates much more disenchantment with the Government than the GSLP spin machine would like to make you believe.

Despite holding the election fourteen days before the then BREXIT deadline and selling hard the idea that Gibraltar could not possibly change its captain so close to BREXIT 48% of people [almost half of Gibraltar] still voted for opposition parties and independent candidates and the change they represented.

Increasingly people are seeing through the GSLP spin machine – where all is not what it seems, where the usual people are benefitted, where there is opaqueness with your money, where a lot of people are left behind. It is no accident that the call of teachers in their demonstration last year was “no more lies.” Gibraltar has unfortunately got used to a particular brand of politics from the governing parties but is tiring of it. It will also be increasingly impatient with a Government that looks to the past as if that is now an excuse for its failings.

By the end of the next election it will have been in office for 12 years. It has had enough time to sort things out. Its failings are now its own. No ifs – no buts.
And it is hollow for the financially reckless who have spent hundreds of millions and promised more huge spending during the election to now talk about the new age of responsibility. That should start with the Government and its wasteful, intransparent approach. We have been calling for prudence for years.

The age of responsibility should have started a long time ago but cannot now be an excuse to deny fairness to people in need or to ensure that the special few keep benefitting. Otherwise all that would materialize is the Orwellian prediction that all persons are equal but some are more equal than others under the GSLP Government.

As I say we accept the result of the election and the challenge for us is to capture the imagination of people who want change in a unified way so that change can be delivered next time. If anything is clear about the last election it is that voting for anyone other than the GSD just guarantees a GSLP Government.

But here’s the thing - we need your help to achieve change. We will play our part by being robust and clear about our message. We will not shirk from saying things that need to be said. We want to make sure that those people with housing, employment or social services concerns who feel abandoned are helped once and for all.

We want to see contracts awarded fairly and supervised strictly so that your money is well spent and not wasted. We want to meet the environmental challenge and will continue to fight for a fair society.

We will suggest constructive changes and lobby hard for the Government to take these on board. We will be there for you and we will continue our work to provide you with the alternative for Government whenever it is necessary to make choices again.

We will say what we mean and call out failures when we have to – without fear or favour. We will be your positive voice for change. Believing that things can be done differently and that we can make this special place of ours even better still.

Thank you for listening and I wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous 2020.